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Vox Magazine
Alisha Sewell

Photo by Mallory Benedict

Alisha Sewell

Rank: Air Force senior airman
Age: 26
Education: Sophomore, nursing

Audio by Samantha Sonderen

May 26, 2011

The military is perceived as an environment that teaches the fearful to be fearless. It's often seen as a place where people put their mental and physical health at risk.

But to 26-year-old Air Force veteran Alisha Sewell, the military is wonderful. It's where she has discovered herself, created a family and made some of the best friends of her life. Instead, college is her battle. It's the type of war zone she never experienced, one where students are unwilling or unable to understand the meaning of the military and where professors think she's another partying 21-year-old. It's a transition from a place where she felt safe and secure to a place where she feels uncertain about many things.

In 2003, during her senior year at Moberly High School, Sewell decided to join the military. She longed to be a surgeon, but she needed a break from school. "I didn't want to fill out all that college info," Sewell says. "I didn't want to write essays. I was a senior, and I was just done, and I wasn't sure I was ready to put in the work for med school." Because her high school required all seniors to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which determines what position in the military would be a good match, Sewell was introduced to the Air Force. She spoke to a recruiter, and her score got her into a position that suited her. Soon after, she was at basic training in San Antonio. After training, Sewell was stationed in Germany, which she found beautiful, despite the beer-filled vending machines and European chain smokers in every direction.

Sewell is a senior airman, a rank she earned for three years of service. During her time in the Air Force, she worked as a bio-environmental engineering technician teaching others how to be safe with hazardous materials in the workplace. "If there ever was a war there, I would be one of those people in a bubble suit," Sewell says. After only two months in Germany, she met her future husband, Dan, who was also in the Air Force, and they married after 18 months of dating. Her daughter, Gabrielle, was born when she was 21. "The fact that my daughter realizes she was born in Europe is amazing to me," Sewell says. Even though there was a language barrier and she was homesick, her new life replaced longings for something familiar. She made her best friends in Germany. "Here, you sit in class with one person or another, but in the military I had to trust people with my life," Sewell says. "The friendships I formed there are stronger than any friendship I formed in the U.S."

But Sewell decided not to re-enlist. "I'm glad I got out because it's better for my family, but I got to travel the world," Sewell says. "I met great people. I even had a great time at basic training." Transitioning from military life to civilian life was difficult for Sewell. "Within a matter of a month, we had to figure out child care, find a new place, find a job, and Dan had to start school," Sewell says. "Things were so uncertain."

Transitioning to college life was another challenge. "We are the nontraditional, traditional students," Sewell says. "You forget how to study. So if I'm not succeeding at a class, they look at me like I was partying all night." Sewell says that she gets stereotyped into a category that doesn't fit.

Sewell started college and had what a typical freshman doesn't: a marriage, a full-time job and a child. "They don't understand what stuck at work means," she says. "And that if my daughter's sick, I can't come to class." After she explains this to her professors, they usually become more understanding.

Military life taught Sewell many things that distinguish her from most people on campus. "I would probably be a 10-year college student without the military," Sewell says. "I would be very unsure. It's taught me direction." Despite the frustrations she encounters, Sewell knows she is on the right track. She plans to graduate with a Bachelor of Nursing in 2014 and should receive her master's degree in 2017. "The military gave me the direction, but college is allowing me to be where I want to be in the end," she says. "It's allowing me to have that stable environment for my family."

"I'm glad I got out because it's better for my family, but I got to travel the world. I met great people. I even had a great time at basic training."